The Romanesque Sculptural Imagination (Dennis Aubrey)

PJ and I have shot approximately 450 of our beloved Romanesque churches in the past five years that we have been doing the Via Lucis project, and this year we’ll be shooting another 85 or so. One would think that we might tire of old churches, but the opposite is true. We constantly discover new vistas and ideas; we often return to the churches we have shot in the past, sometimes multiple times, and still see so much that we have missed.

Early in the project, we did not concentrate on the sculpture because we were mostly concerned with architecture. Only later did I realize that the sculpture is as important a part of the architectural conception of the building as the pillars and vaults. Imagine Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers without her west portal!

West facade, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the history of these churches, we have also followed the development of medieval sculptural skill. In the earliest stirrings of the Romanesque renaissance early in the tenth century, there was little ability to carve realistic images in stone. Instead, the sculptors created a formalized and hieratic two-dimensional presentation – often beautiful and sophisticated. It is anything but artistically primitive, but the sculptural skills were rudimentary.

Christ in mandorla, Eglise à Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Barely a century later, the Master of Cabestany was creating works the took advantage of the three-dimensional quality of the stone medium – images with astonishing emotional impact. This capital in Rieux-Minervois is a marvel – notice how the figure on the right peeks around the angel wing at the lead angel, himself carved beautifully in three dimensions as he thrusts outward in the physical action of flight.

Église Sainte Marie, Rieux Minervois (Aude) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Only two centuries after the Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines tympanum, the churches routinely demonstrated the ability to conceive and execute images in three dimensional space. This rendition of the “Flight to Egypt” in Saulieu features Joseph on one side of the capital using a free-floating rope to lead the ass carrying Mary and Jesus on the adjacent face. Even the details of the foliage are beautifully delineated.

Flight to Egypt, Basilique Saint-Andoche, Saulieu (Côte d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This medieval sculptural imagination was often playful and toyed with reality in a way that we can only see as modern. This archivolt detail in the north portal tympanum of the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques turns stone into paper.

Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The skills extended to remarkable renderings of the human. In the Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais is a very large capital (now displayed on the ground at the back of the nave.) The softening humanity of the two women (on the right we believe the figure is Mary Magdalene) is somehow evoked from the hardness of the rock from which they were carved – truly the work of a master working in the depths of the Auvergne in the 12th Century.

Holy women at the tomb of Christ, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

And finally, one of the glories of Romanesque sculpture, the sublime Jeremiah in Moissac. We need two shots from different angles to communicate the virtuosity of this work. In the first photograph, we see the prophet almost in repose, head turned to his left, the waves of his hair and beard flowing in the opposite direction giving a tremendous vitality to a static composition. The details of the clothing are finely rendered as well.

Jeremiah, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

But the same figure from a slightly different angle reveals a completely different sense of life to the work. How is it possible to communicate introspection and religious beatitude in stone? This is, we believe, the same brilliant talent who created the Isaiah at Sainte Marie de Souillac. Something that is almost impossible to capture photographically is the topography of the piece. Jeremiah is on the trumeau of the south portal. The inclination of his head to his left means that he is looking inward to the narthex of the church where the worshipper would enter. He leads one into the church. However, when you exit the church, Jeremiah is gazing directly at you.

Jeremiah, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Gaze back at him and you receive the sense of Jeremiah as the reluctant prophet who witnessed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem yet could write, “For the Lord will not cast off for ever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men.” (Lamentations of Jeremiah)

This morning, as we prepared this post, both PJ and I are struck with awe at the achievements of these workers of miracles in stone. The creative impulse of the human soul was never more brilliantly realized.

12 thoughts on “The Romanesque Sculptural Imagination (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Oh I would never get tired of visiting old churches! Their richness in details fill my eyes with excitement and I get completely overwhelmed. What a brilliant idea you had with this project! your blog is a’ bath’ of culture to us and an enchantment to our eyes!

    1. Thanks, Pat. It is overwhelming, but wonderfully overwhelming. Two weeks from today we will be shooting at Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu in Brittany, our first church in the new series. We appreciate your comments and you are always welcome to visit these churches through our work at Via Lucis. But since you appear to be in England, you must have ample opportunity to do so in reality. We are planning our trip to see the Norman churches in England. Perhaps next year (though Spain beckons mightily.)

    1. Great details, absolutely. The Jeremiah gets me every single time I look at it (along with the Isaiah in Souillac). We have shots of literally thousands of these works. Maybe I’ll have to do a book just on the sculpture. Or just the capitals. Or just the tympana. Or just the portals. And this is just what has survived!

  2. Such wonderful examples of the stone artwork that these artists created on these churches. I’m so impressed in the number of churches that you’ve been able to visit. Quite an achievement !

    Finally put up my photos on the churches in Cusco, so you can check them out. Also I visited the Washington National Cathedral yesterday and hopefully that post will be a guest post on SKEdazzle’s blog. They allow you to visit and photography anytime, tripods are fine.

    1. Wonderful churches in Cusco, Bella, thanks for the word on your post. For those who are interested, here is a link. Interesting that the Washington National Cathedral allowed the tripods – did you make prior arrangements? In fact the last time we were there, another photographer saw us with our tripods and brought his in. After a couple of minutes, they asked him to put the tripod away.

      1. I went on a photo tour and we were able to go behind the scenes which was awesome. The docent there said it was an open door policy for tripods, so long as you stay only on the side aisles and stay out of the way of regular visitors.

  3. I can feel your fire: books on churches, sculptures, tympana, portals, capitals. I think you’ll have to ask for a second life to get it all done. Still, keep feeding that fire; some of the sparks have landed on me and, I’m sure, on many of your readers.

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